When I first started doing mindfulness exercises, it was a huge game changer. I remember being pretty shocked by it. Because I was just doing little check-ins with my feelings, with my thoughts, with my body. Asking myself “what are you feeling right now?” and then not judging the answer. Or sitting stock still in my chair with my eyes closed for 30 seconds or so just listening to the sound of office HVAC.
These were tiny changes. They were quick.
And yet, I felt my entire inner life start to shift. I did little exercises while I drove (letting myself absorb into the flow of traffic without interjecting editorially with thoughts). I did exercises when I loaded the dishwasher. How did my hands feel as I loaded the bottom rack?
And as I did these tiny exercises, I started to deal with stress a bit better. My life was very stressful back then. I had a monster commute and a corporate job that had me managing a busy department with few resources and even less protection from the higher-ups if I made a mistake. I had to make a lot of judgment calls, take a lot of risks — and I had no guarantee that my company would support me if things went pear-shaped. If anything, I had a lot of evidence to the contrary, judging by how they treated everyone else.
I loved my job but not my employer.
Mindfulness came to me at just the right moment. The risks were still there. The threats. But it began to feel more like a dance. And I danced and danced.
Inevitably, there were rough spots. Times when something didn’t work out as planned. But my instinct when that happened was not to freak the eff out. Not to spin out of control emotionally. Make no mistake — I would have surely done this in the past. But there was something about this particular dance I was doing that made me default to something different. Instead, I accepted the unpleasant reality and immediately switched to problem-solving mode.
Many times I had fixed the issue before my peers were done freaking out about things going wrong. On a practical level, this was great. It’s best to patch a leaking boat before it sinks, right?
But I found I had to spend extended periods of time assuring them that I understood the gravity of the situation and explaining my solution and reassuring them emotionally. This process typically took longer than actually fixing the issue.
As time went on, I realized it was actually quicker to feign upset while I was actually in calm problem-solving mode. Because I found that if you’re not upset, other people think you’re not taking it seriously. So if you calmly problem-solve without first displaying the expected emotion, they’ll find your solution suspect.
It was bizarre. I didn’t like that feeling of pretending to be upset while calmly problem-solving. It took more energy than just fixing the issue to broadcast an emotion I wasn’t naturally having anymore. But it did the trick. I spent less time after the fix reassuring the person that I had taken it seriously and that my solution reflected that if I had seemed upset to them when something went wrong.
But there was definitely a cost. When I projected that upset emotion, my body felt it a bit. So I found I was a bit more stressed than I was when I was simply calmly problem-solving.
Anyway, it’s a curious phenomenon. Research actually shows that it’s difficult to do anything well if you’re too keyed up (a.k.a. the Yerkes-Dodson law). This is especially true when it comes to solving complex problems (anything more involved than running away from something that’s trying to eat you basically). In times of high stress, we typically narrow our field down to one or two simple solutions, ignoring the rest of the entire array of possibilities, where the optimal course of action may very well lie.
And yet, there’s this other social expectation that taking something seriously means getting emotionally upset — and this clashes violently with the reality of being effective in such a situation.